Noelle Acheson is a 10-year veteran of company analysis, corporate finance and fund management, and a member of CoinDesk's product team.
The following article originally appeared in CoinDesk Weekly, a custom-curated newsletter delivered every Sunday, exclusively to our subscribers.
While blockchain news may seem flooded these days with bank-sponsored projects either launching or hitting milestones, readers will be forgiven for feeling underwhelmed. There are many big names, true, but the projects themselves seem, in general, small.
This may be largely accurate, but it is misleading.
As everyone knows, finance is a huge field, comprised of a vast array of intersecting and intertwined activities. But it's difficult to appreciate just how complicated it is. The extent to which each step depends on several others, and the risks inherent in just about every one, highlight the fragility of the current system and point to how it will evolve.
Take, for example, the report from earlier this week that Spanish bank BBVA is working on a Corda-based pilot to improve foreign exchange (FX) matching.
FX is one of the largest asset groups traded on capital markets around the world. Matching (validating information and pairing buy and sell orders) is, however, just one step in FX trading, and it doesn't even touch the concept of settlement and payment.
However, a blockchain-based process could, in theory, enhance platform compatibility, reduce the amount of errors and make the process more transparent, lowering trading costs and supporting liquidity.
Start small, aim high
As another example, this past week, French bank BNP Paribas revealed it is working on a blockchain platform to improve corporate action announcements, such as dividend payments and stock splits.
Note that the actual payments and splits will not themselves be executed on the platform – it just aims to improve the verifiable and unhackable delivery of the information.
While this may not sound like a big deal, it is: corporate actions typically affect the value of a security, and errors (one recent study showed that almost 10 percent contain factual inaccuracies, and over 20 percent were incomplete) can produce material losses.
If you look at other bank-related news from the past few weeks, you’ll see a similar trend: big names in finance looking at potential blockchain impact on relatively small parts of their activities.
But the small parts generally have big impacts – they provide the "plumbing" that makes the flashier aspects of finance run smoothly. Making them more efficient will have a direct effect on other parts of the system, including the banks' bottom line.
Nevertheless, this may seem like a cautious "dipping of the toe" into blockchain waters. Where are the grand goals? Where is the more resilient financial structure that the new technology promised?
It is slowly emerging, through piecemeal trials and tentative implementations. This is how the "blockchainization" of finance will happen. Bit by little bit.
Banks are not going to "think big" with such a new and relatively untested concept. Nor should they, given their operations' systemic importance.
Modest trials, on the other hand, are not only an opportunity for financial institutions to test the technology within a manageable scope and budget. They are also the only process regulators will allow – a sweeping shift in how information and value is handled will no doubt frighten the overseers into taking preventive measures.
Small steps, each rigorously tested, are unlikely to set off alarms. Also, this approach is scalable.
If, for instance, BBVA finds that the blockchain platform for FX matching provides tangible positive results, the test can be opened up to other banks, and can be expanded to include other financial assets.
The small connections, when put together, will make up the big picture – by implementing improvements, step by step, and then scaling where possible. And the focused projects that today seem limited will one day coalesce to reveal the full potential of a new way of handling finance.
Meanwhile, we should pay attention to the baby steps – we will soon see that they’re not so baby after all.
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